Remembering Jimi Hendrix and John Bonham

by Greg Prato

Sadly, this September marks 50 years since the passing of Jimi Hendrix and 40 years since the passing of John Bonham. To celebrate both legendary and influential artists, I have assembled two new books, Avatar of the Electric Guitar: The Genius of Jimi Hendrix and BONZO: 30 Rock Drummers Remember the Legendary John Bonham.

Each book is mostly comprised of all-new interviews conducted exclusively for each of these books, including Kirk Hammett, Alex Lifeson, Steve Vai, John Petrucci, and Kim Thayil, (among others) for Avatar of the Electric Guitar, and Kenny Aronoff, Mike Portnoy, John Dolmayan, Brian Tichy, and Steve Gorman (among others) for BONZO.

It is widely believed that Jimi Hendrix was one of the greatest rock guitarists of all time... and quite possibly, THE greatest. All you have to do is compare what rock guitar sounded like before Jimi burst on the scene in the late '60s, and what it sounded like after. And in addition to trailblazing new sounds and approaches, his influence reached beyond just the guitar community – he quickly became the literal poster child for the psychedelic rock movement, due to his unique fashion, song lyrics, and a now-iconic performance at Woodstock. But sadly, Jimi's story also remains one of rock's most tragic – dying at the age of 27 on September 18, 1970 (just as he was playing some of the biggest concerts of his career and entering a new musical phase).

Few rock drummers remain as universally praised as Led Zeppelin's John Bonham. Listen to any Zeppelin album, and you will hear a virtual showcase on expert rock drumming – while never getting in the way of the group's other members and their contributions, singer Robert Plant, guitarist Jimmy Page, and bassist John Paul Jones. But sadly, one of rock's all-time greats died tragically young – he was only 32 years old – resulting in the end of one of rock's most celebrated bands.

Below, are exclusive excerpts from both books.

Avatar of the Electric Guitar: The Genius of Jimi Hendrix

Scott Gorham [Thin Lizzy guitarist] remembers meeting Jimi:

I was 16 years old. My eventual brother-in-law, Bob Siebenberg from Supertramp, was with me, and we had another friend. Hendrix was playing up on the Earl Warren Showgrounds [on August 19, 1967]. He was the support act to Moby Grape. But we had no money to get into this concert. I had stolen my mom's car, and this friend of ours had taken his dad's World War II pistol, and he pawned it – for God sake's, what a horrible thing that was – so we could have gas money. We finally get up there, and I'm questioning them the whole time, "How are we supposed to get in? We don't have any money!" And this guy says, "Don't say anything... just follow me lead."

He had brought this old rusted tool chest with him, and I didn't ask any questions. We got there, we parked, he opened it up, and he gave me this lump of wire. He said, "Just put this around your shoulder." He pulled out this flashlight that didn't work, and then he took the tool chest himself, because he put his camera in there. He says, "We're going to go to the stage door. Don't anybody say anything... just follow my lead."

So, knock on the door, and this big, fat, bearded security guy came out, and my friend says, "We're with the electric company." I thought, "The electric company? We're dead in the water now." But he says, "We got a call to do a job." The guy looks at us, looks out at the parking lot, and goes, "Alright... come on in." So, we walk in, and all I remember is this really dark corridor, and we had no idea where we were. The first trash can we found, we dumped all the stuff – the flashlight, the wire, and the case – but he took his camera out.

And I saw this lit doorway. We headed for that, rounded the corner, looked in... and there was Hendrix – leaning against the table, with his guitar, warming up. And my 16-year-old little brain just froze on the spot. I couldn't actually bring myself to say anything. And this buddy of mine comes breezing in, and says, "Hey Jimi, how ya doin'? Listen, do you mind if we take a coupla pictures?" And Hendrix goes, "Sure, no problem." He stood up, had his picture taken. We chatted for... it couldn't have been more than three minutes, and then he said, "Listen guys, hope you don't mind, but I have to warm up here." He shook everybody's hand, and said, "Listen, have a great time. I'll see you out front." And that was it, we were gone.

We made our way out to the auditorium, and we watched Hendrix – and he was amazing. And after he was done, three-quarters of the audience got up and left. So, Moby Grape just got the shit blown out of them – a three-quarter empty hall. I don't think I've ever seen anybody get so blown away in my life. Hendrix was really cool.

Alex Lifeson [Rush guitarist] selects his favorite Jimi solos:

"Manic Depression." The solo is totally... manic! "Are You Experienced" – I'd never heard anything like it. I've done my share of backward recording, but the solo is perfect in that song. "All Along the Watchtower." Gorgeous production, best acoustic guitar sound, and the solo is sublime. The "slide half" is dreamy and dripping with feel, and the "wah wah half" is such a cool melody and execution – not to mention the sweeping pumping mix effect. Keep in mind, the wah wah had just come on the scene and was one of the only few effects – including the Fuzz Face – available.

Steve Vai [Frank Zappa, David Lee Roth & Whitesnake guitarist, solo artist] recalls first hearing Jimi's music:

I remember pretty distinctly – I was ten years old and my sister had an 8-track of Woodstock. It was broken, and would only play one channel. And that channel happened to have on it Sly and the Family Stone performing "Dance to the Music" and Jimi Hendrix doing "The Star-Spangled Banner." And I listened to it over and over and over again. I couldn't believe that those sounds were a guitar. Not that I knew much about what a guitar could do.

So, my introduction to the guitar was, "It could make sounds like this." I came into the world – like many people – starting out where many great guitar players were hovering at a particular time, so a ten-year-old kid, who's listening to people like Hendrix and Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, you believe, "Well... this is where it's at." That's kind of like your introduction.

But shortly after that, my brother got a cassette of Are You Experienced. And that really captured me. There was something about it that was so different than any of that other '60s music. It had a quality of invention in it, but it had imagination that seemed to be emanating from a different dimension than those other bands that were coming into our house on records and cassettes. So, that's right around the time I started playing the guitar. And basically, meditated to that album.

And when I started playing guitar, I was taking lessons from Joe Satriani. I was about 12/13 years old, and he was really into Hendrix. So, that's where I really started to hear that body of Jimi's work – because Joe gave me Axis: Bold as Love, Electric Ladyland, and Cry of Love. These were really the only records available of Jimi at the time. And there was Band of Gypsys that had a tremendous impact on me. I listened to "Machine Gun" endlessly – that's where I knew I wanted to go. Or at least incorporate elements of that into my guitar playing.

Randy Hansen [singer/guitarist] on seeing Jimi in concert during his last US tour:

I saw him at Sick's Stadium here in Seattle – his last show in his hometown [on July 26, 1970]. The band that was on before them was Cactus, and they kicked major ass up there, and I thought, "How does anybody follow that?" So, I got up real close to the stage for when Jimi came on, and it started raining. And I thought, "This could be miserable for him. This is probably going to be not that good." And he went out there and just kicked everyone's ass! Things were flying – just the sounds and everything. You're going, "Why does he sound different than everybody else? I don't get it." I was really blown away by it.

But not only that – it was raining really hard, and water was dripping off the tips of his boots that he had on, and I was directly under his boots. I kept clearing my eyes, because the water was dripping off his boots right into my eyes. I'm looking straight up at him, and all I could see are his fingers and his mouth – he's got his mouth hanging open and throwing his head back. I'm going, "This guy is so into it." I was 17 at the time and I was totally impressed. I ended up with mononucleosis – I shared a cigarette with somebody and they had mono, I guess. I was sick for a month.

Kirk Hammett [Metallica guitarist] on if Jimi is the greatest rock guitarist of all-time:

Yeah, I would say that. Only because it's hard to put anybody else in that position. And it's easy to put Jimi in that position, because he died at 27. And look at all he accomplished in that short amount of time – like, five years, maybe. To accomplish all of that in that short period of time and be so influential, to leave a body of music that is still vibrant and influential to this day – to this minute – I would say yes, he is probably the greatest guitar player. To be able to do all that in that short of time... I mean, there are lots of great guitar players out there. But they had the benefit of their whole lives playing and getting better and exploring and shifting and changing. Jimi didn't have that. He came out and he was all he was in those five years.

BONZO: 30 Rock Drummers Remember the Legendary John Bonham

Kenny Aronoff [drummer for John Mellencamp, John Fogerty, Smashing Pumpkins, etc.] on how to get a powerful drum sound like Bonham:

I tell people it comes from in your head, visualizing how that would sound – I'm always visualizing Bonham playing Zeppelin, those sounds – and then feeling it in your heart at the same time. I'm just constantly chasing after it. I can play technically, but you've got to hear it first to be able to reproduce it. You've got to hear it and feel it first, and then while you play, you observe yourself and listen – as if you were in the audience or behind the drummer. And just try to emulate. Are you emulating that sound and that feel and that energy that you're hearing, visualizing, and feeling in your heart?

Now, from a technical standpoint, watch any footage of John. He sounded really loud and really big, but when I was watching the DVD [of the Royal Albert Hall performance], he's got coated Ambassador heads on his drums. Now, if you're hitting coated Ambassador heads as hard as you think he's playing, they'd be dented immediately. If I played coated Ambassador heads the way you saw me play at the Experience Hendrix show, it would last three songs.

Also, when I was a little kid, if you played a snare drum and you kept the head for a long time – like six months – it would get black in the center. And then, if you kept playing it, your drumsticks would then knock out the black in the center. So, you had all this black on the drumhead, but right in the center where your sticks hit the most, the black was gone. That coated Ambassador head would have had to have been on there for six months, at least – to look like that. Back in the day, when I was doing Aldo Nova's Blood on the Bricks album, I had to replace my coated Ambassador head three times in one day. Because we would try to get a certain tone or pitch – it was a deep drum, and we wanted the drum tuned down low. The drum wasn't tuned very high – so that made it easier to hit it.

It sounded like John was playing really hard... but he wasn't playing as hard as you think. His hair is flying around, and I studied his muscles – he was raising his hands up and he knew how to hit. If you listen to him play the drum solo, "Moby Dick," he's emulating what Max Roach did [sings the beginning beat of "The Drums Also Waltzes"]. Max Roach did it in 3/4. My point is he was doing jazz stuff in a rock setting. And some of the stuff he was doing, you couldn't do if you played really, really hard. So, I want to clarify that John Bonham's sound was huge and he hit the drums hard... but not as hard as you think he was.

Marky Ramone [drummer for Ramones, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Dust] on which songs featured Bonham's drumming the best:

"Good Times, Bad Times," "Dazed and Confused," obviously "Moby Dick," "Whole Lotta Love," and great drumming on "The Lemon Song." In my opinion – that's when his drum sound... you knew it was him. Now, on the fourth album, obviously "Stairway to Heaven." The third album I kind of liked, but the drums were a little softer on that one for some reason – he tuned them a little differently. But to me, the signature sound of his snare drum and bass drum that really impressed me – where it got to a point where it couldn't go any further – was "Stairway to Heaven."

The song that I really thought was great – and you could tell he was using the Vistalite drums – was "Kashmir" off Physical Graffiti. I could just tell by the sound. Now, who knows what he used to record in England. I'm not sure if he got the Ludwig set for that – he might have picked them up later, when they started touring and when they got the contract. So, you never know.

Mitch Mitchell, I always thought he used Ludwig drums all the time, but on the first Hendrix album, he used Premier, which was an English set. But the thing is, it's debatable. On the first album, the drums sound big and they sound oversized. I don't know if Premier was making drums like that at the time. And I don't think Premier would have made a custom set for him at that point – like they did for Keith Moon. The wood finish maple set that he had could have been on that first album – for sure.

Simon Wright [drummer for AC/DC, Dio, UFO, etc.] compares the drumming style of AC/DC to John Bonham:

I think John's style is a lot more freeform. It's more... I'm not sure if "jammy" is the right word. It's definitely solid rock drumming – in both instances. But AC/DC drumming is more straightforward – with not as many frills and trills. It's a lot more restrained. I think some of the studio stuff that John Bonham did was a little more restrained – when he played live, they all kind of went for it. The songs developed live on stage with Jimmy and John Paul.

There were jam situations going on – they extended songs and parts, and added parts. So, I think the studio albums of Zeppelin were like a foundation for those songs live – they created so much more when they played them live. Sometimes, it was a little "hit or miss," but they always managed to rein it back in. That was the beauty of Zeppelin, I think – they would take chances. They were just raging sometimes on stage. Brilliant stuff.

Jerry Gaskill [drummer for King's X] on seeing John Bonham live:

I got to see them twice. The first time I saw them, I think I was 11. I was way up at the top of the Spectrum – in Philadelphia. I couldn't see real well, but I was very excited. But the first time, the show just sounded like a bunch of noise to me. And then, they did "Moby Dick," and John Bonham did the drum solo, and from that point on, the show just became incredible. I don't know what it was, but everything just... turned immediately.

And the second time I saw them was in 1972 – right as the fourth record came out. The first time I saw them, the third record wasn't even out yet, but I then saw them on the fourth record tour – and we had ninth row seats on the floor. The only way I can describe it is imagine Led Zeppelin in all their glory, as great as you can imagine what a Led Zeppelin show would be... and it was beyond that. That's how great it was. He had that green sparkle kit, and it was the greatest sounding thing I'd ever heard up to that point in my life. That's how incredible it was.

Mike Portnoy [drummer for Dream Theater, Avenged Sevenfold, Sons of Apollo, etc.] on how John Bonham should be remembered:

He was one of the all-time greats. He was just rock solid, and one of a kind. His swing and his feel is unparalleled. Nobody played like John Bonham, and still to this day, nobody really can play like John Bonham – as much as everybody tries. He will forever be one of the greatest rock drummers in the history of music. And he deserves it.

August 31, 2020
Ordering Info:
Avatar of the Electric Guitar: The Genius of Jimi Hendrix
BONZO: 30 Rock Drummers Remember the Legendary John Bonham

Further reading:

Kenny Aronoff Picks The Five Songs With The Best Drumming Of All Time
Interview with Steve Vai
Interview with Joe Satriani
Interview with Marky Ramone

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